Saturday, July 22, 2017

LitRPG Audiobook Reviews? Maybe.

Lastly, I might be considering writing audiobook reviews. Maybe. I've been rather taken of late by a niche genre of fiction called "LitRPG". It's as silly as it sounds, but frankly I can't get enough of it. In general, I'm a very opinionated person, but I regularly force myself to keep from sharing my opinions on the internet. It's difficult, but every time I feel something bubbling up inside of me at the sight of a facebook comment debate, I force myself to turn around and walk away.

But goddamnit, I need to let it out somewhere. Every time I see posts on a the handful of LitRPG focused facebook groups of which I am a member, I see people lauding books with some of the most inane, lazy writing I've read in a long time. I see people celebrating narrators whose manner of speaking leave me spitting with frustration. But I can't just respond to them, saying as much - if they like what they're reading and hearing, who am I to challenge them? I'm certainly the odd one out here.

The way I see things, the genre of LitRPG is split into two camps, although I'm sure most fans find things to enjoy in both. LitRPG generally focuses on characters who exist in a world, either temporarily or permanently, where their capabilities follow a level/experience based progression. Sometimes that's just how their world is, but more often they're playing some kind of full-immersion virtual reality MMORPG. In other cases, they're people from the real world physically transported into such a world.

So the two camps I was referring to are as follows:
  • Stories where the RPG-style world and the characters' interaction with it is the focus. Your main character(s) complete story quests, interact with NPCs, and essentially just progress through the framework the world provides.
  • Stories where the RPG-style world is the backdrop, against which the characters' interactions with each other are the focus. The world is merely the context in which these interactions occur, and often the real world (and all of its own issues) serves as an important element to the story.
Stories that lean more towards the first camp drive me insane. It's not particularly often that I find one that isn't juvenile in its approach, and I can't quite think of one right off the top of my head. See, the problem generally seems to be that the problems they face don't really carry that much weight. I generally see books like this relying on a line of quests within the game serving as the primary motivation for the character. Complete this objective, then that, move along, kill the goblins, save the village, get the coin reward, and so on and so forth. By definition, if the quest itself is fabricated even within the story! How many levels of inception do you expect my suspension of disbelief to work through?

The second group however is where I've found some real gems. Stories that balance the real and virtual worlds, that demonstrate how the same problems manifest and can be dealt with in each plane of existence. Travis Bagwell's Awaken Online series and Stephen Morse's Continue Online: Memories are excellent examples of this. The problems they face are interpersonal, psychological and financial. These are things that every one of us can relate to with ease.

Other interesting stories explore the economics of trade, and the grand sociological challenges of running clans and guilds. Manipulating markets and people to amass wealth and power, and furthermore the abuse of that power. Even determining what constitutes crime in such virtual worlds, and how it should be dealt with. These questions are what thrill me about the genre, and at least as far as the audiobook market goes, for every hundred of the first category, you might come across one of the second.

I'm a bit sad about the fact that I've limited myself to audiobooks, as I'm sure there's all kinds of excellent stories out there. But what can I do? I have a tendency to read a little slow, and between my job, my work on, my art and my personal game development projects, I simply haven't the time to sit down and read. It certainly doesn't help when so many celebrated titles in the genre are just puerile descriptions of the author playing an imaginary video game.

On the flipside, when it comes to my boiling cauldron of opinions, narrators are as ripe a target, both for praise and for protest. There are a lot out there who are pretty good - perhaps not worth noting, but who do nothing to harm the story in any way. Then there are those who have genuinely taken a good story and with their own range of voices, and their own grasp of the characters' emotional depth, have taken it to a whole new level. A couple that come to mind of this sort are Pavi Proczko and Andrea Parsneau, whose performances really brought the characters to life.

Then there are those whose performances leave you wondering if it was the story itself that was bad, or if the narrator's performance was just so obnoxiously distracting that it ruined something perfectly mediocre. Sadly there are two fairly prolific narrators who fit the bill for this last group - Jonathan Yen and Jeff Hayes. Based on what I've seen, a lot of people really seem to enjoy their performances, so it may well just be a matter of my personal taste. Jonathan Yen in particular has this awkward, lilting rhythm to his delivery, so heavy handed in its attempted manipulation of how the listener interprets that which is being said. Almost every line is spoken as though it's something amazing, or something just-so-funny. The latter is particularly grating, as there are plenty of situations where an author may include something a little cheesy, but that can easily be down played if it doesn't quite tickle the reader's funny bone. This is unfortunately impossible when Jonathan Yen reads it with his exaggerated, exasperating meter and tone.

Given that I'm effectively addicted to this genre, I need to have an audiobook to listen to. I've taken to walking to and from work, giving me a solid hour at a minimum every day to burn through. Because of this, I've been picking up title after title, and have willingly spent my precious audible credits knowing full well that the next one would more than likely be yet another dud. Despite my ire towards his work, I'm currently listening to yet another narration by Jonathan Yen in the hopes that it wouldn't be too bad. So far, I'm not impressed.

Anyway, I'm seriously considering recording my own thoughts on these books, more for my own sake than for others' (as I've never actually publicized this blog, and treat it more like a sparsely-used diary). Perhaps giving my favourites another listen will help keep me from having to dig into books I already know I won't much enjoy. I hope not to be overly bitter and vitriolic, but given that I'm a stubborn person and will usually push through a bad book with a sour face, there's bound to be a little gnashing of teeth.

The once lush jungle of doodles is now a parched desert

Here are some doodles and illustrations since my last art post. Not all finished, but I figured I'd include some abandoned pieces and whatnot to compensate for the fact that I haven't been drawing nearly as much as I should.

Also, in the whole damn year, I managed to do just one new comic for drawabox.


Man, I am pooped. The last two months have been rough in a variety of ways, all of them work related. Around mid-May, I had a new project dropped in my lap, which required me to fill a role that was well outside of both my comfort zone, and my area of expertise. For context's sake, I was hired on as a concept artist a few years back, although I've filled a variety of roles for the benefit of the company itself. That's really how small studios work, people wear a lot of different hats when they can. So, I've done a lot of programming (due to my previous employment in that field), GUI design, puzzle design, web development, level design, etc.

I wouldn't say I was overwhelmingly pleased to do these things, but I was certainly willing. Illustration and concept design for games is of course what I wanted to focus on, but things don't always go the way you want. On the other hand, I love the people I work for and with, so I was willing to tough it out.

This time, things were definitely more contentious. We took a contract to create a movie, intended for a 360 degree dome theatre venue. The movie, which was to be at least 15 minutes in length, was to be created within Unity (a game engine I am quite familiar with). All that's well and good, but the task that fell to me was to build out the scenes (combining the models we have, using fog, particle systems, etc. to create a believable atmosphere, and so on) and to choreograph the animation. I say choreograph because I wasn't actually animating the rigs myself, but rather establishing the paths things followed, and determining which animations should play where and how. There's definitely a lot of overlap in what I did and actual 3D animation.

Let me tell you - I loathe animation. The beauty of illustration is that you're set within a frame, and you capture a single instant in time. You don't have to worry about how things get to a specific location, or what they're going to look like in the next or previous moment. You don't have to worry about things outside of this one slice of space and time. It can be quite difficult to tell a story within a single shot, but that's a challenge I've always loved to tackle.

The challenges introduced in having to deal with here were a nightmare, especially for the first month. Over time I started to get used to how things worked, and other members of the team developed some interesting tools that allowed us to rely more on procedural animations which freed me up in a lot of ways (although they introduced their own issues). Overall, things got better, but the underlying fact that I should not have been filling that role served as a continual weight on my shoulders. The unfortunate truth was, of course, that I was still the most appropriate person for the task on the team.

So, we compensated for my shortcomings with overtime. Oh, so much overtime.

We ramped up slow. The first few weeks, I was doing a couple of late nights, totaling to 8-12 extra hours per week. Not bad. Then a Sunday. Then a whole work-week of late nights. And finally, my last "week" of work consisted of 26 consecutive days, over which I worked about 280 hours. Overall, the project demanded about 200 hours of overtime, over the course of a month and a half.

Thankfully, that's done now. The result's not too shabby either, and people seem to have a lot of good things to say about it. Sadly the dome theatre itself doesn't do justice to all of our hard work, as despite our best colour-correction efforts, there's only so much you can do to combat the light that leaks in on a sunny day to wash out your colours, and the generally meh-quality projectors.

Despite that, I certainly impressed myself. I don't ever want to do anything like this again, but I'm proud to have stuck through it. We should be getting some well deserved time off soon, but we still have another small project to polish off for that same dome theatre. At least I've got my weekends back now.

Here's a trailer for the show (though it was made from older footage, while we were still scrambling to iron out a lot of animation kinks. A Whale Story: Surviving Against the Odds